We can learn to love failure, and we should!

November 04, 2014
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Next to "death," the word "failure" is perhaps the most feared word in North America. Now, there are two main kinds of failure. The first kind of failure is just a temporary setback, such as a student's failing of one class among many, or a failed first job interview.

In general, our society is lenient towards the first kind of failure. We value entrepreneurship and persistence, along with the motto "if at first you don't succeed, try, try again." After all, we all know stories of inventors like Edison who worked his way through 1,000 ways to not create a light bulb.

Then there is failure with the sting of permanence, that is, when personal success no longer appears possible in a person's lifetime. For instance, when a person is fired from a job they've held for decades, or when the stock market erases one's lifetime earnings, and so on. I also include in that category those who have spent decades in and out of jail, those with mental illness or other debilitating health conditions, and the very poor.

This kind of failure that can leave people with little or no hope in life, and in general, persons who experience such failure tend to receive a very cool reception in our society. Most people are hard at work trying to make it in life, trying to become somebody important or wealthy or both. This usually also means that we tend to celebrate those who have preceded us along that road: not only do we compete with the Joneses, but we also invite them over for supper as we further admire (read: envy) their possessions and accomplishments.

And yet, should the Joneses experience a "fall from grace" and a reversal of their fortunes, they may well find themselves quickly abandoned by nearly all of their former good pals. Society tends to have little patience for persons with systemic lifetime failure. Such persons are the wallflowers of our society, hanging out in the shadows, uninvited to the dance of our busy lives.

This is why it was such a breath of fresh air to see the headline "It's All Right to Be a Failure" on the front page of The Restoration, the newspaper of Madonna House ministries in Combermere. The article was an excerpt from the writings of Madonna House founder Catherine Doherty. I can see from this piece that Doherty was a fireball, and I like that. She was not afraid to say it like it is.

But much more important, Doherty had the Catholic X-ray vision of saints and prophets. She saw right through all the pretences and false accomplishments that the world celebrates, and she turned all those things upside down just like Christ did. She had no patience for vanity, and didn't bow down to wealth, prestige and power. Amazing how rare that is.

Here is a short taste:
I remember when I first came to North America. I was in a train station, a small station, and there was a band there. A crowd of people was waiting for the train. So, the train arrived and somebody got off. There was applause, the band played, and girls threw batons in the air.
I thought to myself: "This must be a very important person; he must have done something great. He must have discovered a cure for a disease or done something else to benefit mankind."
Finally, when everybody left, I asked the station master about it. He said, "This guy made good. He was the son of a poor farmer, and he went to the city and made a lot of money." 
"Oh?" sad I. "Money? And that's why you had the band?" Now, to me, this man was an absolute failure. To them, he was an absolute success.
Doherty's article is a shining example of why the Catholic faith is such a light of revelation to the world. She doesn't condemn this rich man, but she sees him as a failure because he is not living his life authentically. She sees that the desire for worldly success and wealth is motivated by a desire for approval, "And behind this need for approval lies the terrible hunger of people on this North American continent for love."

Of course we know, even as we try, that Phil Colins got it right and that "you can't buy me love". Still, most people settle for the second best that money and power can purchase for them: formal social approval, public accolades, shallow friendships dependent on status. etc. These things can make us feel almost loved, though in their heart of hearts, even many famous and very wealthy people can still feel incredibly lonely and unsatisfied. The counterfeit version of affection that success can get for us is just not enough.

The sad irony is that we exert so much effort to achieve a highly diluted version of love, while the real deal is actually much easier to find. It is freely available to everyone without any work involved: "you are never unloved and you are never alone...Christ is right here. Christ is mercy and love." What a joy, as God loves us in such a more perfect way than other people ever can.

If we know and accept this truth, our fear of failure, which is really a fear of social disapproval and rejection, will finally be put to rest. This is true liberation born of the Christian faith. Indeed, in direct opposition to the world's fear of failure, Doherty writes: "I fervently hope that every member of Madonna House fails at least once a week - in little things and in big things. Only then will they learn what it is to live."

Failure in fact puts us in touch with our true humanity. Perfection is an unachievable lie for human beings, and trying to live our lives to that impossible standard is actually a kind of tyranny with which we enslave ourselves. So much depression, low self esteem and unhappiness could surely be avoided if we learned to accept our failures and still feel worthy of respect, dignity and love.

Doherty's wisdom comes from the world's greatest failure:
"Look at the crucifix. Can you think of any failure greater than that? The people in Christ's time saw him as a great prophet; some of them expected him to become King of the Jews. Then they saw him crucified like a criminal, For them, that looked like the greatest failure in the world."
Failure, where is thy sting? I never realized before how wonderful it is to have as our model the greatest failure in the world. What fear is left of failure, when God already failed before we ever did? Christ didn't just conquer death, he also conquered failure: "he who appeared to be the greatest failure of all, loves failures".

What an incredible gift for us all.

Photo: Stephan Geyer via photopin cc

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We provide commentary on the cultural decline of the Western world, from a conservative perspective.